Sandwiched between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, Las Vegas, New Mexico was established seventy years before its neon counterpart in Nevada. Though it is a (fairly) quiet village of less than 14,000 today (2020 census), it was the Wild West’s version of “Sin City” back in the late 1880s, with an abundance of dance halls, saloons, brothels, gambling, and shootouts in the street. However, for travelers heading west from Missouri and Kansas on the Santa Fe Trail , Las Vegas was the first sign of civilization after a long, 600-mile trek across the plains.

History of Las Vegas

29 settlers established Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de las Vegas Grandes (Our Lady of Sorrows of the Great Meadows) in 1835. They received the land grant from the Mexican government about a decade after Mexico became independent from Spain (1821). The watershed from the Gallinas River supported a verdant valley, providing year around water for livestock and irrigating crops.

Situated on the western edge of the Great Plains, the settlers anticipated Apache attacks. They built their village in the traditional Spanish Colonial style, with a large, open central plaza surrounded by low adobe buildings. The plaza was used to gather and protect livestock and wagon trains during raids, with the circle of adobe buildings providing strong defensive positions. Their first major community infrastructure project was the Acequia Madre (Mother Ditch), an irrigation canal channeling water from the Gallinas River to homes and fields throughout the community. Almost two centuries later, the Mother Ditch continues to run adjacent to the downtown historic district, nurturing yards and gardens on the west side of town.

Santa Fe Trail

Prior to Mexico achieving independence from Spain in 1821, trade with foreign nations was forbidden by the Spanish crown. A change in perspective accompanied the change in leadership, with Mexico embracing trade opportunities with the United States. As a result, traffic began to steadily increase on the Santa Fe Trail, which was the primary trade route linking Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Las Vegas was perfectly situated to capitalize on the opportunity. By the 1830s, there was a steady stream of supplies heading to Santa Fe.

Mexican American War

The peace and prosperity didn’t last long. The U.S. decided to seize land along the Rio Grande as part of America’s expansion west in 1846. General Stephen W. Kearny marched into Las Vegas with an army of 2,500 men. With the city’s mayor at his side, Kearny announced to the gathered townsfolk that they were under the “protection” of the U.S. Army and no longer citizens of Mexico. With cannons pointed at them, the locals didn’t complain. However, not everyone was on board with the change in government. Several Las Vegas locals participated in the Taos Revolt the following year when Hispanos and Puebloans joined forces to (unsuccessfully) repel the American invaders.

The Battle for Las Vegas was short-lived. The rebels held their ground for about 15 minutes. With that loss, Las Vegas officially became an American frontier town at the beginning of what would be a turbulent territorial era.

After his speech on the Las Vegas plaza, Kearny and his army continued to Santa Fe, routing the New Mexico militia, and hoisting the Stars & Stripes over the plaza of the capital on August 18, 1846. At the time, New Mexico had a democratically constituted government, but Kearny disbanded that and installed a military dictatorship based on the Kearny Code. Though New Mexicans pressed for the restoration of autonomous governance and admission to the American Union from 1847 onward, New Mexico remained in territorial limbo for over 60 years, eventually becoming the 47th state January 6, 1912.

A windmill was erected in the Plaza and briefly used as a gallows in 1876.

Fort Union

The U.S. Army built Fort Union 18 miles north of Las Vegas in 1851 to provide military protection for the wagon trains traveling the Santa Fe Trail. With local farmers and merchants providing supplies for the troops, Fort Union infused a lot of cash into the local economy. Las Vegas, San Miguel, Mora, and La Junta (now Watrous) supplied beef. Five mills were built in the Mora valley to provide flour. By the 1870’s, Las Vegas was a major trade hub, with waves of people from the east arriving daily.

Las Vegas railroad muralAtchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad 

When the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad reached the settlement on July 4, 1879, Las Vegas was the biggest city between San Francisco, California, and Independence, Missouri. The railroad established a station one mile east of the Plaza, creating a separate, rival “New Town,” both of which were named Las Vegas. The demarcation line was the railroad tracks. Old and new, west and east, Mexican and Anglo. The division created rifts that would persist for a century. However, the two towns eventually merged into the Las Vegas we know today. Any remaining rivalry plays out between the two high schools on the field.

Railroad District, aka “New Town”

“New Town” consisted of a makeshift settlement of tents and shelters at first, but it evolved quickly. Within a few years, “New Town” had a thriving commercial district and Las Vegas rivaled Denver and El Paso in size.

“New Town” was distinct from “Old Town,” built based on east coast urban planning, with a tidy grid of parks and streets laid out in straight lines. Newcomers, mostly Anglo, built homes reminiscent of the grandiose Victorians on the east coast: Queen Anne, Italianate, Georgian Revival, etc. The elaborate structures were a stark contrast to the humble adobes lining the plaza of “Old Town.” As the growth continued, the infusion of diverse architectural styles crossed the river in 1882 with the construction of the Plaza Hotel. Las Vegas quickly became the largest, wealthiest community in the New Mexico territory and one of the largest cities in the American West.

The explosion of wealth attracted a diverse assortment of entrepreneurs and opportunists. “New Town” became the place to go for people running from the law. There was little law and less order. As a result, the community was quickly overwhelmed by a flood of robbers, thieves, murderers, gamblers, gunmen, swindlers, prostitutes, and vagrants, including several infamous characters from the Old West: Doc Holliday and his girlfriend Big Nose Kate, Mysterious Dave Mather, Hoodoo Brown, Dave Rudabaugh, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James.

Bridge Street, near the Las Vegas Plaza

“Without exception there was no town which harbored a more disreputable gang of desperadoes and outlaws than did Las Vegas.”

~ Ralph Emerson Twitchell, Historian

The Original “Sin City”

By the late 1800s, Las Vegas had a sordid reputation on par with Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone. Las Vegas was the last place that Doc Holliday set out his shingle as a dentist. He also owned a saloon in town briefly, but he had to leave the territory on short notice after killing a popular local gunman in the street. He went back to Dodge City, Kansas before heading to Tombstone, Arizona to meet up with Wyatt Earp. Billy the Kid escaped from the Las Vegas jail, which was located behind the Plaza Hotel at the time. However, the most influential local bandits were those lurking behind badges.

Dodge City Gang

With so much wealth flowing into and out of the territory on trains and stagecoaches, robberies became common so the railroad recruited “peace officers” to deter attacks. Unfortunately, the marshals they hired merely eliminated the competition to clear the way for their own criminial cabal, which included “Mysterious” Dave Mather, the Las Vegas Marshall, “Hoodoo Brown,” the Justice of the Peace, “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh (he died later with Billy the Kid during the shootout with Pat Garrett), several police officers, the railroad’s “peace” officers, and an assortment of hired guns. Many of the men had reputations for violent behavior in Dodge City.

Collectively, they were known as the Dodge City Gang and they ruled Las Vegas for two years in the early 1880s, participating in multiple stagecoach and train robberies, cattle rustling, murders, and lynchings. However, the citizens of Las Vegas got fed up with cattle rustling, blood in the streets and bullies behind badges. The Las Vegas Optic posted this notice on April 8, 1880:


“The citizens of Las Vegas have tired of robbery, murder, and other crimes that have made this town a byword in every civilized community. They have resolved to put a stop to crime if in attaining that end, they have to forget the law and resort to a speedier justice than it will afford. All such characters are, therefore, hereby notified, that they must either leave this town or conform themselves to the requirements of law, or they will be summarily dealt with. The flow of blood must and shall be stopped in this community, and the good citiezens of both the old and new towns have determined to stop it, if they have to HANG by the strong arm of FORCE, every violator of the law in the country.” ~ Vigilantes

Shortly afterwards, the Dodge City Gang disbanded, moved elsewhere, and the town began to settle down.

20th Century Las Vegas

Turn-of-the-century Las Vegas featured all the modern amenities, including an electric street railway, the Carnegie library, the “Duncan Opera House” on the corner of 6th Street and Douglas Avenue, and the New Mexico Normal School (now New Mexico Highlands University).

By the 1890s the trains brought an endless stream of wealthy vacationers to the American West. Luxury hotels were built to host them. One of the most stylish was La Castañeda, built in 1898 as one of Fred Harvey’s railroad hotels.

The Rough Riders

In 1898, the U.S. got involved in Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Teddy Roosevelt, wanted to compile a Cavalry Regiment of rugged, experienced horsemen with a desire to fight. At the time, many in the U.S. government were suspicious about New Mexico’s loyalties. Conversely, many New Mexicans were eager to demonstrate their patriotism. Furthermore, New Mexicans were known for their ability to break and ride range horses and the cowboys in the territory were dealing with a changing world. The open frontier was shrinking, there were a lot more fences, and their way of life was dying with the decline in cattle drives. Many needed work and they were eager for adventure.

In total, New Mexico responded enthusiastically to Roosevelt’s call to arms, with 351 volunteers stepping up. 21 were from Las Vegas. Though eventually half of the volunteers were left behind with the horses due to poor logistical planning, the other half served admirably. During the charge up San Juan Hill, the New Mexico contingency of 270 suffered relatively few casualties, with 31 wounded, 10 dead. They returned as heroes.

Due to the significant role played by the New Mexico volunteers, the first Rough Rider reunion was held in Las Vegas at La Castañeda in 1899, attended by Teddy Roosevelt. The Rough Riders continued to gather for reunions in Las Vegas until 1968.

Highlands University in Las Vegas
New Mexico Highlands University was established as New Mexico Normal School in 1893. The institution primarily offered teacher education. It became New Mexico Highlands University in 1941 when it expanded the curriculum beyond teaching.

Preserving the History of the West

When the railroad was replaced by the U.S. Interstate system, Las Vegas’ fortunes began to decline. Trade and commerce shifted elsewhere, with the Depression dealing a death blow to the local economy. Additionally, a series of droughts led to repeated crop failure. The once wealthy and wild western town languished. While other cities razed their historic districts in the 20th century to modernize, Las Vegas’ historic buildings were boarded up, gradually deteriorating, but intact.

Over the last several decades, renewed interest in historic preservation led to commercial investments in the Plaza District and the Railroad District, with small shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants bringing the downtown areas back to life. In total, Las Vegas has nine historic districts, with over 900 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. More information and links to the walking guides below.

Plaza Hotel on the Las Vegas plaza
Built in 1882, the Plaza Hotel is still hosting guests (and a few ghosts).

Las Vegas Visitor Center

500 Railroad Avenue
Las Vegas, NM 87701
(505) 429-2436
(505) 425-3707

The city’s visitors center is located in the railroad depot. Built in 1898, the restored brick depot is still active, serving Amtrak.

Directions: Las Vegas is located on I-25, 110 miles south of Raton, 65 miles east of Santa Fe, 122 miles northeast of Albuquerque.


Plaza Hotel
230 Plaza
Las Vegas, NM
(505) 425-3591

The Plaza Hotel on Old Town Plaza was considered “The Belle of the Southwest” when it was built in 1882. At the time, it was the most luxurious hotel in the territory, hosting the noteworthy and nefarious. Overlooking the Old Town Plaza Park, the hotel was/is a favorite for film crews, historians, and travelers looking for a place to stay with character and a story to tell. If you opt to stay at the Plaza, check out Byron T.’s Saloon, an authentic 1800s old western-style saloon.

Hotel Castaneda
La Castañeda was a jewel in Fred Harvey’s collection of hotels.

Castañeda Hotel
524 Railroad Ave.
Las Vegas, NM
(505) 425-3591

The Castañeda opened in 1898, just in time to host the first reunion of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Architect Frederick Roehrig designed the hotel. It was the first Mission Revival structure in New Mexico.

If you opt to stay at the Castañeda, check out Bar Castañeda, one of two dining options finside the historic hotel

The Carriage House B & B
925 Sixth Street
Las Vegas, NM
(505) 454-1784

The Carriage House was built in 1893. This large Victorian residence has been fully restored.

Charlie's Spic & Span Bakery and Cafe
Charlie’s Spic & Span Bakery and Cafe. Save room for the bakery case.


Charlie’s Spic & Span Bakery & Café
715 Douglas Avenue
Las Vegas, NM 87701
(505) 426-1921

El Rialto
141 Bridge St
Las Vegas, NM 87701
(505) 454-0037

The Skillet
619 12th St
Las Vegas, NM 87701
(505) 563-0477


Fiestas de Las Vegas – Three-day 4th of July festival with live music, a parade, and fireworks.

Rough Rider Motorcycle Rally – July gathering of motorcyclists from across the country.

historic homes in las Vegas New MexicoTour Guides

Southwest Detours
Phone: (505) 459-6987
E -mail:

If you want the inside scoop on the history of Las Vegas and the surrounding areas, book a tour with Southwest Detours. They provide tours of historic Las Vegas NM, including Harvey Girl Tours of the Castaneda Hotel, Montezuma Castle, the historic homes, the Railroad district, the Plaza Hotel, and Fort Union.

More to See & Do in the Area

If you have time to explore the area, there’s plenty to keep you busy in town and nearby.

Downtown Las Vegas New Mexico
Bridge Street, near the Plaza

Rough Rider Memorial Collection

City of Las Vegas Museum
727 Grand Avenue
Las Vegas, NM 87701
(505) 454-1401 ext. 283

Tues – Sun, 10 AM – 4 PM
May – September. FREE

Housed in a 1940’s era Works Project Administration (WPA) building, the city of Las Vegas manages a collection of Rough Riders memorabilia and artifacts. The collection also includes household items, weapons, ranching gear, tools, and furniture from the territorial and frontier eras.

Plaza Antiques
1805 Plaza St
Las Vegas, NM 87701
(505) 429-9447

Gallinas River Walk

The Cinder Road River Trail is a multipurpose trail along Gallinas Creek. It is a beautiful place to walk and exercise. The trail snakes through downtown on the creek’s east bank, with pedestrian bridges crossing the creek. The lower half of the trail was built on a former railroad spur to Montezuma.

One of the over 900 properties on the National Historic Registry in Las Vegas, New MexicoWander the Historic Districts

Due to a lack of business development in the 20th century, Las Vegas is a preserved, rather than a restored, community, with an abundance of beautiful historic structures. The buildings include examples of most of the major Western architectural styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In total, over 900 properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, earning Las Vegas a spot on the Register’s list of “Distinctive Destinations.”

Some of the city’s notable buildings include:
  • Vicente Silva House, 1878 New Mexican vernacular, Italiante style residence.
  • Dr. H.J. Mueller House, 1881 Victorian with an unusual octagonal tower. Currently a Bed and Breakfast called Crow’s Nest Bed and Breakfast.
  • Desmarais House/Our Lady of Sorrows Parish Hall, Pre-1883 adobe. Like the other adobe buildings on the Plaza, the wooden porch was removed and the building was stuccoed. However, it retains Territorial-style lintels over the windows.
  • Plaza Hotel, 1882 three-story Victorian hotel overlooking the Las Vegas plaza.
  • Louis Ilfeld Building, 1921 one-story brick front building with a stepped parapet roof.
  • Old City Hall, New Mexico’s first municipal building, completed in 1892.
  • Louis Fort House, 1895 Queen Anne house adjacent to Carnegie Park.
  • Masonic Temple, 1895 Richardsonian Romanesque structure.
  • Las Vegas Railroad Depot and Visitor Center, 1899 brick structure with curvilinear gables.
  • Castañeda Hotel, mission-style Harvey House built in 1898. Site of the first reunion of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in 1899.
  • Carnegie Library, built in 1903 at the center of Carnegie Park, Modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s property at Monticello.



Montezuma Hot Springs

At Montezuma Hot Springs, three groups of hot springs have been diverted to create a series of rustic cement and rock pools. The springs are open to the public. Bathing suits are required. Bring towels. There is no parking lot. Park on the side of the road and walk. Pools range in size and temperature (from 102º to 120º).

Directions: From the plaza in Las Vegas, go about 6 miles northwest on NM 65, aka Hot Springs Road. Look for a small sign on the right side of the road, right by the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West.

Montezuma Ice Pond

If Mother Nature provides snow during the winter, there is skating, downhill and cross country skiing at Montezuma Ice Pond, one of the largest outdoor rinks in the state.

Montezuma’s Castle

Built as a destination hotel by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1886, this 90,000-square-foot Queen Anne structure was considered one of the most luxurious hotels to visit at the turn of the century. Guests included Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Jesse James, and Emperor Hirohito of Japan. The United World College purchased the 100-acre complex in 1981. The building is only open to the public on certain days of the year. Check the school’s website for dates and times.

If you stop by Montezuma’s Castle, check out Dwan Light Sanctuary (if it is open). Gigantic prisms transform sunlight into swashes of vibrant, moving rainbows. The art installation was designed by Charles Ross in 1996. He is also building Star Axis, a giant earthwork sculpture and observatory near Las Vegas. It will be 11 stories high and one-fifth of a mile across when completed. (505) 454-4200

Fort Union


Fort Union National Monument

3115 NM Highway 161
Watrous, NM 87753
(505) 425-8025

Monument grounds and Visitor Center: 8 AM – 4 PM
Labor Day – Memorial Day: 8 AM – 5 PM
Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day: CLOSED

Fees/Passes – FREE

Fort Union National Monument preserves the second of three forts constructed on the site since 1851, as well as the ruins of the third fort. There is also a network of ruts from the Mountain and Cimarron Branches of the old Santa Fe Trail.

Fort Union’s presence on the Santa Fe trail served two purposes: military support and supply depot. The massive amount of supplies needed to maintain the U.S. army in the Southwest came from eastern depots at Fort Leavenworth and St. Louis. Supplies were shipped across the plains on the Santa Fe Trail by contract, stored at the Fort Union depot and dispatched to others posts in the territory. The district’s chief quartermaster and ordnance office was stationed at Fort Union. Fort Union’s role in the supply chain was critical until the railroad arrived thirty years later.

Pecos National Historical Park 
Pecos National Historical Park
Pecos National Historical Park

P.O. Box 418
Pecos, NM 87552
(505) 757-6414

Pecos National Historical Park preserves 12,000 years of history, including the ancient pueblo of Pecos, two Spanish Colonial missions, Santa Fe Trail sites, 20th century ranch history of Forked Lightning Ranch, and the site of the Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass.

Pecos’ recorded history began around 800 AD when early inhabitants of the Rio Grande Valley moved into the upper Pecos Valley. They established 14 small hamlets by 1100 AD, extending 40 miles down the river. Over time, the villages consolidated at Pecos Pueblo, dramatically increasing the population of the community. It became a frontier trading hub and fortress by 1450, home to more than 2000 people.

Villanueva state park
The Pecos River at Villanueva State Park

Natural Resources

Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge

Route 1
Las Vegas, NM 87701
(505) 425-3581

Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge is made up of 8,672-acres of native grasslands, croplands, marshes, ponds, timbered canyons and streams. The Continental Divide is west of the refuge and the Chihuahuan desert is south.

The refuge is within the Central Flyway, with a variety of migratory birds traveling overhead, including sandhill cranes, long-billed curlews, rough-legged hawks, and numerous shorebirds. Winter residents include bald eagles, 21-species of ducks, Canada geese, and Snow geese.

McAllister Lake Wildlife Area

The refuge contains several lakes used by wintering waterfowl. The tour route through the refuge is only open in the fall. The area is open for boating, fishing, and camping in the spring, summer, and fall, but those facilities close during the winter months.

Storrie Lake

Storrie Lake State Park is open for fishing year-round. Consistent winds provide excellent conditions for sailing and windsurfing during the warmer months.

Sabinoso Wilderness

The Sabinoso Wildernss is a beautiful area with high, narrow mesas surrounded by cliff-lined canyons. The woodlands are a combination of piñon pine and juniper with occasional clusters of ponderosa pine. A perennial warm season grass savanna is found on the mesa tops. Runoff from snow and rain feed seasonal streams through the canyon bottoms, supporting groves of willow and cottonwood.

Villanueva State Park

Located near the Spanish Colonial village of Villanueva, Villanueva State Park is tucked in a canyon on the Pecos River. The park features adobe picnic shelters, with cottonwoods providing ample shade. There is a bridge across the river to access short loop trails to other sites in the park, including prehistoric Native American ruins and cliff-top overlook.

El Porvenir Campground/Trail head to Hermit’s Peak

Located next to Beaver Creek, at the base of Hermit’s Peak, El Porvenir Campground offers 13 campsites with picnic tables, fire rings/grills, 2 vault toilets, and bear proof trash bins. No utility hookups, dump stations or showers. The trailhead to Hermit’s Peak starts at the campground. The 9.5-mile trail rises from 7,520 feet to 10,160 feet, with a spectacular view from the top.

Hermit's Peak, on the way to El Porvenir Campground
Hermit’s Peak, on the way to El Porvenir Campground.

Film & TV in Las Vegas

If Las Vegas evokes a sense of Déjà vu, you may have seen it before on television or on the big screen. It has been a popular destination for film crews since the silent movie era. Several of the silent western films starring Tom Mix filmed in the area between 1913-1915. In total, over 100 television and movie productions have used Las Vegas as a backdrop.

You may have seen a few?!

** This is not a complete list. The list is growing every year.



1962–1963 NBC television western series Empire and its second-season version entitled Redigo were filmed in Santa Fe and near Storrie Lake in Las Vegas.

1991 TV movie Miracle in the Wilderness

1995 mini-series Buffalo Girls

2012 TV series Longmire. Set in Wyoming, filmed in Las Vegas.

2014 TV series House of Cards filmed in Las Vegas for two weeks.

The TV series Good Luck Charlie aired episodeWeekend in Vegas.”

Criminal Minds episode “Outlaw” takes place in Las Vegas.

2017-2018 TV series Midnight, Texas

2019 TV series Perpetual Grace, LTD

2019-2022 The TV series Roswell, New Mexico regularly relies on Las Vegas as a backdrop.

2022 TV series, Outer Range, is a mystery/thriller, with Las Vegas being used to depict Wyoming.

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